Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Unicorn Tears: When and How Offensive Costumes are Appropriate

A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to an event called I Feel … Unicorn Planet. Knowing everyone was going to go as a unicorn, I yawned, “How cliché! I want to wear something no one’s ever seen or worn at a party like this.” Therefore even I was shocked when I had the sudden impulse to go as a unicorn after all—a unicorn harnessed, on a leash, crying rhinestone tears (which, according to legend, can heal any illness). I made the entire fascinator myself that day with a horn I’d made out of cut, sand-blasted, heated, and twisted sheet acrylic; glow-in-the-dark ears of Sculpey; and some cardboard and fabric. I also added synthetic hair for effect. The costume incorporates a low-cut American Apparel onesie in gold, because pink is too obvious and gold is rare and royal, a pink and purple tail my friend Stace Cadet gave me at Burning Man last year, a soft white knit dickie found in the children’s section of a thrift store, wintery tights from Denmark, and MoonBoots that perfectly match the synthetic rope I used for my harness and leash. This way I have elements of the Sparkle Pony aesthetic, but I have made the male gaze the subject of the piece.

For me, to go in an immodest costume as a unicorn captured, tortured, and abused by humans perfectly danced the line of typical Burner culture and Leigh Bowery-inspired, DuChampian cheekiness used to recontextualize the costume and the culture it pertains to entirely. A lot of women even in the Burning Man scene sometimes wear costumes that are sexist without even thinking about them in those terms, or which are sexual but not particularly intelligent or opinionated. My costume is sexual but has a narrative, which forces the viewer to contend with him or herself on the politics of his or her sexuality. Is this young blonde girl in a low-cut gold leotard dressed as a unicorn in a harness with apparent tears streaming down her face sexy? Why? Am I morally at peace with my sexual attraction to her?

With the lovely Marz Attack, who always makes her own amazing costumes.

A concept I have often struggled with is the justoposition of Feminism and submission in the BDSM scene. I understand that acting as a submissive in a role-playing, sexy scenario means the scenario often plays a role too—the role of immersion therapy—whether or not the players are aware of it. It is a euphemism for trauma and a malphemism for sex. That’s right, I invented the portmanteau “malphemism.” Obviously it describes the opposite of euphemism: it is a word or phrase that makes things sound more sinister than they really are. Anyway, as I was saying, I understand how a feminist could be a submissive—but I struggle with where the Dom/me might stand on that issue. Why does violence against women arouse that person? To what extent is the Dom/me enticed by a woman in pain? Where is the end point? Where are the boundaries? What is the pathology? Of course, these answers must differ from Dom/me to Dom/me, but the point is that they get asked.

I am a sexual person: most women are. Most people are. But there is more to my sexuality than my fetishes or caprices: my sexuality is innately and necessarily a political issue by merit of my gender, and I choose to hold the reigns. Yes, my costume is “slutty,” for those dense enough to slut-shame; but it transcends “sexual”: it’s psychosexual. My costume directly interacts with the viewer to create a dialogue about the boundaries of sex and morality, of nurtured fetishes versus natural/genetic fetishes. This tacit but direct general affront to the viewer is exactly what an “offensive” costume should do: it should not attack nor alienate any group of people, but direct attention to something taken for granted by the status quo and open up a discussion about it.

Of course, complexity truly lays the foundation of an appropriately offensive costume. Even today, well into the third millennium, sex remains a complicated political issue despite its standing as a basic human function. However, this is still only one subject. Usually, my costumes talk about more than psychosexuality because I recontextualize pre-existing symbols to create them. My captured unicorn costume here, for instance, stands not only for a different psychosexual interpretation to each viewer as mentioned, but for a unicorn—an adored symbol of our pasts that decorated binders and t-shirts and pencils in early childhood.  My costume harkens to the permanent nostalgia we feel as humans, knowing too acutely that life, despite our best efforts, is not a movie we can fast-forward and rewind, watching our favorite parts and skipping traumatic scenes of humiliation. When my friend Paul saw a photo of my costume, he had just read a quote from E.M. Cioran's book Tears and Saints that says, "we cry because we long for a lost paradise." Legend states only a virgin can catch a unicorn; that if a woman only pretends to be a virgin the unicorn may not appear at all, or worse, may tear her apart with her horn. Thus "Unicorn Tears" becomes a homograph and a double-entendre. Until recently, I felt it more accurate to say only a virgin would waste her time searching for unicorns. The unicorn’s tearing and terrible horn stands for the disillusionment and harsh life lessons that come in adulthood. 

But recently, unicorns have come back into fashion among adults. I feel that the Tumblr-fueled resurgence of idolizing pre-teen and sophomoric idols such as unicorns, kittens, dolphins, 90s rave culture, and cutesy cartoons like Sailor Moon touches on our alienated generation Y's stance where even emoting and relating is done through screens--not just physically but in the Lacanian sense. Our nostalgia and our distance form a fractal paradox, and infinite regress of abjection and desire. We seem to long for childhood--for permission to long for the absurd, to obsess over something fantastic or beautiful or idealistic, to wholeheartedly believe that we are the main character of a Disney comedy where we find out we have secret magical powers on our sixteenth birthday and our dreams come true, and we are loved unconditionally with only enough pain to make the story romantic. We want to believe, but the pain of having those hopes crushed by experience and life patterns make believing a vulnerable, Uncanny, unsafe thing to do.

My costumes tend to offend because they bring up a lot of subjects that many people haven't sat with themselves and come to comfortable opinions or conclusions on yet. The lewdness of some of my costumes is usually one of the first things noticed and commented on, and we know our culture in particular has a very fragmented idea of sexuality, built on the foundations of Puritanism and haunted by the ghosts of Victorianism. We are raised to believe that a woman ought to be bestowed with the title "sexy" against her will and without her permission. If she embraces herself as sexy, she's a transgressive "slut." My costumes also seem to offend because they often incorporate cartoony versions of biological functions--tears, as seen here, or period blood, or once even semen--universal qualities in humans that we treat like shameful and alienating secrets, the discovery of which might lead to the collapse of society as a whole. Most importantly, my costumes offend people on a level they tend to have trouble expressing; my goal in a costume is to disrupt established symbols to such an extent that fallacies taken for granted by our cultures all our lives must be ruminated on. I seek to mediate our symbols of idealism with hyperbolic expressions of humanity. An offensive costume, in short, must be offensive to the conservative status quo because it attacks not a group of people, but a stifling pillar of propriety. It must change meanings. It must inspire questions. It may not have an answer, or even an opinion.

This means, of course, that costumes of rape victims, Nazis, and racist stereotypes automatically forfeit. They, in my experience thus far, do not engage the viewer in internal conflict on an unconsidered subject which pervades mundanity, but use predetermined symbols of hate to communicate more bigotry, more othering, more objectification, spiraling into a feedback loop of metaphysical colonialism projected onto a group of already oppressed people. The only means by which such a costume could be appropriately offensive would be if the costume were to call attention to itself in its blatant ignorance: to recontextualize the piece to talk about something else entirely--most obviously, the fact that such costumes are mass-produced or worn, sometimes by people completely oblivious to their conceptual crimes. In short, costumes that depict a people as physically or existentially trapped or defeated with no narrative are not only offensive by nature but offensive without reason: offensive in their stupidity. If someone struggles to articulate why he or she is at qualms, and who with, in response to your costume, you’re more likely doing it right. Either that, or you should ask someone who seems a little sharper.

I'm taking the reigns on my own sexuality. Are you? 

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